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So You Wanna Be A Screenwriter?

January 16th, 2008

After watching the crap that dominates the weekend box office (i.e. National Treasure 2 – Book of Secrets) and with the writer’s strike in the national consciousness, I’m sure many of you have reached the conclusion that you could write something better. That’s how I started writing scripts. I went to the USC School of Cinematic Arts to learn how to be a director. While I was there, I worked an internship at Blue Tulip Productions (director Jan De Bont’s production company) where I read many screenplays by both established and up-and-coming writers. Most of them sucked. That’s when I decided to try my hand at writing. I figured that even the worst piece of junk that I could come up with would still be better than the dreck that I was reading that was getting made. I was not wrong.

Since I started writing, I have consistently relied on the opinions of a few close friends to help me develop my writing. Not too long ago, one of my friends told me that he had developed an interest in learning how to write screenplays and asked me for advice. I gave him a few words of wisdom culled from my personal experience and sent him on his way. A few days later, my friend returned and asked if I could recommend any good books on screenwriting. Apparently my advice was not enough. That was my friend’s first mistake.

Still, I wanted to help. I went to my local book store and found volumes of books and guides on screenwriting. Some of the books were written by screenwriting gurus such as Syd Field and Robert McKee and had a long laundry list of testimonials. I could see my friend’s dilemma. Out of the almost endless sea of screenwriting manuals, which books are actually useful?

To make a long story short, I found most of the books out there on screenwriting to be crap. What they are, essentially, is some guy watching a ton of movies and then dissecting the structure of the movies down to a formula and then teaching the formula. If one were to follow the advice given by the quacks (i.e. Syd Field and Robert McKee) in their books, then one would end up writing a very cookie cutter and formulaic story.

There were only a few books that I found helpful and I have listed them here in:

The Cinemoose Reading Guide For Screenwriters

An old Royal typewriter.


1. On Writing by Stephen King

I know what you’re thinking. Stephen King? It just so happens that this is the best book on creative writing that I have come across. This book is split into two parts. The first is a semi-autobiography of Stephen King that helps you understand the life and journey of a writer and how that shapes their work. The second part consists of a nuts and bolts breakdown of the craft of writing. While Stephen King’s advice is geared towards aspiring novelists, the advice he gives on plot, character and story are equally applicable to the art of screenwriting.

2. On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King

This is the audiobook version of Stephen King’s memoir on writing read by the ol’ Stevie King himself. Before I start a new script or begin rewriting an old script, I often find myself listening to this audiobook for both inspiration and as a reminder of what and how I should be writing. I recommend both the printed and the audio versions of the book and find each to be useful in different ways.

3. On Directing Film by David Mamet

I realize that this is a book on directing, as the title so clearly states, and it is a very good book for directors. However, it is also a very good book for aspiring screenwriters. Although best known for his dialogue and his plays, Pulitzer-prize winner David Mamet was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter before became a director. This book, which was taken from a series of lectures that David Mamet gave while teaching a class on directing at Columbia University, will help you learn how to break down a story visually, which is a very important skill for any budding screenwriter.

4. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Even a screenwriter needs to have proper grammer, spelling and punctuation. This timeless guide will not only make your writing look more professional, but also help you to make your writing clearer and easier to read.

These are the only books that I have found useful for screenwriters. If you know of any other helpful books or would like to know my opinion of a particular book, please feel free to contact me and let me know.

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